Legacies of Our Past
Scattered throughout the communities of Western Massachusetts are legacies of our past, old graveyards that testify to the lives of those who have gone. It is well worth spending some Spring day simply stopping and exploring one of these ancient and sometimes not so ancient memorial sites. One may not know or recognize the names, but, somehow one becomes familiar nonetheless, for the stones themselves tell stories. Mother, father, child, or elder, the stones speak of the people resting there. Sometimes there is poetry inscribed in the sandstone or limestone tablets, occasionally reminding the living that they too shall become a part of the past.
But there is a group of people who have not been granted this final dignity. These people are the patients of state mental hospitals, which includes Northampton State Hospital. Originally known as the Northampton Lunatic Asylum, this facility was opened with lofty goals in 1857. As Northampton State Hospital, it was closed in 1993.
Exiled to an institutionalized life, mentally ill patients there were often forgotten and isolated even while living. Their families were sometimes non-existent, or just as likely, not willing to acknowledge them. When they died, some patients were, sadly, as the only alternative, buried on the grounds of the hospital in graves that could usually only be designated by numbered markers. They, and their family's, confidentiality are being maintained even after their passing. Subject to change and the ravages of time, these pauper's graveyards have been obliterated through neglect, overgrowth, alternative use, and development. The people interred there, and their personal histories, have been all but erased.
There are those in the consumer/ex-patient/psychiatric survivor movement and elsewhere who believe that this state of affairs is unjust, indeed, that it is wrong, and it needs to be rectified. And efforts are being made all over the country to accomplish this, since this is not an isolated phenomenon. Attempts are being made to identify the locations of these cemeteries, to protect them from further disuse, and most importantly to designate them for what they are, memorials to the lives of people, who, wanted or unwanted, cared for or not-so-well cared for-whether they had some measure of happiness in their lives, or whether they suffered profoundly, they nonetheless were human beings deserving of respect and remembrance.
Along with this process, there needs to be encouraged the discussion about the history of mental health care, of its successes as well as its failings, and about the nature of mental illness itself. There certainly also needs to be an analysis of society and culture as it relates to tolerance and understanding. Is the community able and willing to nurture its members, or instead, will it bring to bear either veiled or overt oppression?
The past cannot be changed. It can only be investigated, interpreted, and reinterpreted. The awareness gained can then be applied to action only in the present and the future. Those who are left anonymous in these cemeteries are part of a history that can't be changed. But as part of an on-going saga, perhaps they have a role to play in allowing the living to learn and understand.
By Scott L. Aschenbach
March 26, 1999
Last update: 5/22/99